Improving your Interactive Voice Response, one subtask at a time


As diligent managers and engineers of the Interactive Voice Response (IVR), we have a critical role in identifying and handling the tasks and subtasks that comprise the IVR. I want to share three keys for improving Interactive Voice Response for effectiveness.

First, optimize repetitive subtasks.

Let me give an example of subtask needing optimization.

I rent cars when I travel for training and a while ago I called to check a reservation. I was prompted to enter my member number. While I fumbled my phone into speaker mode and started sliding my thumb across the screen seeking my member number, the IVR responded that it did not recognize my response. Well duh, I hadn’t entered one. “If you need more time” the prompt chirped, “Press 1 now.” Well I was already fumbling for my member number in the app and so I had to switch back to the phone app to press 1, and I must not have done so quickly enough because the IVR concluded I was a lost cause. “We’re sorry but we are unable to help you” it lamented, right before disconnecting my call. The task was offered, but I was unable to complete it. Is it ironic that I timed out while trying to request more time? An optimized Interactive Voice Response is a little more generous with the timeouts to allow callers to find their relevant information AND enter it.

Second, identify commonly collected data and utilize it efficiently.

For this example, let me share that I own a high-end gaming laptop. Well it was a high-end gaming laptop four years ago, now it’s a passable machine for gaming with my kids. In July 2016 I noticed the video card showing eminent signs of demise and began to search for replacement parts. Trying to find a replacement video card was difficult and required a lot of digging and I ultimately acquired one on eBay. My journey, as expected, began by calling the manufacturer of the laptop. As I called to request the obscure video card (who orders video cards for four year old laptops, right?) I was asked to authenticate that I was indeed the owner of an MSI GT60. Later as I moved from the level 1 technician to the level 2 technician and ultimately to their parts department, I was asked multiple times to authenticate that I owned the exact GT60 I was calling about. It was as if the serial number of the laptop was passing from agent to agent, but my authentication wasn’t. The agents didn’t even have the good grace to warm transfer me and let the new agent know I had authenticated. What a disappointment! By not passing my authenticated status along with the serial number of my laptop from agent to agent, I was forced to authenticate each time a new agent entered my task. While ultimately this task was not completed with the manufacturer, I feel the failure wasn’t with them not carrying the obscure video card, but their poor handling of me and my task in the IVR.

Third, analyze, enact change and repeat.

Your IVR isn’t done, ever… period. Yes, take a vacation as needed, attend conferences, have other daily duties, but managing an IVR is a commitment. It’s worth prioritizing in order to minimize customer dissatisfaction or maximize their satisfaction. If you’re looking at a subtask that you have not looked at in a while, start by picking a completion rate of 78% as a goal. Then pick out three or four metrics that describe that subtask. Remember my example entering my customer number… The time allotted to entering my number was not sufficient to find AND enter the number, and the recovery subtask was too short as well. To enact a change, increase the amount of time for each subtask by 25-33% and then analyze again.

Another example of a subtask is playing a seasonal greeting at the beginning of an IVR. If the completion rate drops below the acceptable minimum, or if management just wants it to improve, get in and analyze it. Maybe the abandon rate shows lots of callers hanging up. Are they able to bypass the greeting by pressing a key on their phone or must they listen to a long drawn out greeting? Better voice talent could improve the greeting making it shorter. Allowing callers to bypass the long greeting could improve the abandon rate.

The takeaway is that every subtask has a handful of metrics that describe it. Good IVR managers will analyze those metrics to improve the subtask, enact a change, and then analyze it again. So whether your IVR is a small one-stoplight town or a thriving Metropolis full of complicated intersections, learn and refine the metrics that describe each subtask and treat each one as an opportunity to improve a caller’s experience.